The pro’s and con’s of a farewell Iran strike
By Amir Oren
There is very little to be surprised about upon reading in the New York Times that President Donald Trump has asked his national security team to come up with option for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, or at least the nuclear material kept at Natanz and potentially enabling it, if further enriched, to produce several warheads.
It was expected, before the elections which Trump lost to Joe Biden, that he will consider a parting shot against an adversary he sanctioned and pressed to no avail to negotiate a new nuclear, ballistic missile and general Mideast policy deal, on Trump’s terms. A vastly improved version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action of the Obama era, which Trump withdrew from.
On one level, Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” campaign against Iran succeeded. As a benefactor of various proxies, primarily Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran can’t breathe. It has less money for itself and thus for aggressive actions down the priority list. The targeted killing of Quds Force commander Kassem Soleimani, while not an integral part of this campaign, was a definite plus, taking out Iran’s unique strategic and operational talent.
Yet this does not outweigh the downside of Trump insistence on aborting the JCPOA. Obama and the European leaders who decided in 2015 that a flawed deal is better than none (with the Russians and Chinese sure to support any deal) chose to concentrate on the main agenda item, stopping Iran in mid-race to the bomb. Of course, they would have loved to throw everything in, as indicated by “comprehensive”, but faced with the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of Tehran’s directives to its negotiators, Western interlocutors reasoned that they should not go home empty-handed.
The idea was that with JCPOA will come an improved atmosphere, leading to other concessions as Iranians see the wisdom of cooperation rather than confrontation. There was a precedent for that – the detente line taken by the US vis-a-vis the Soviet Union in the 1970’s, with the “Nuclear basket” being handled even while human rights and Third World frictions were kept simmering. Washington resisted the temptation to adopt an “all or nothing at all” stance touted by hard-liners, as it was correctly judged to result in nothing at all – the hard-liners in Moscow would not budge, either. Everything is important. The brutal treatment of dissidents was important. Cuban proxies in Africa were important. But only one goal was most important – preventing a nuclear World War III. The rest would not only have to wait – the chances of a breakthrough in the other baskets were deemed better once arms control agreements lessened the tensions.
It was eventually proven right, after Mikhail Gorbachev presided over a failing USSR, and this is the example Obama has hoped to emulate and Biden might achieve, once Supreme Leader Khamenei leaves the scene and a Gorbachev-like Iranian takes over. It is not a forgone conclusion. The KGB and other die-hards rebelled against Gorbachev, who was saved by Yeltsin at the price of the empire’s dissolution. In Iran, the parallels are more ominous, less likely to produce a benign outcome, but the goal is worth pursuing. This is probably going to be Biden’s main line of effort, once he and his team are off and running.
This may happen from January 2021 on, but for the time being Trump is still there, with full executive powers, subject to Congressional approval (which is quite limited and conditional regarding an attack on Iran, as distinct from an action taken in self-defense or consensual pre-emption). As the Commander-in-Chief, he may order a strike and live with the outcry. He did it quite sparingly over the last 46 months – against Syrian chemical warfare targets and terrorist leaders. Soleimani was struck down in Iraq. Within Iran proper, and with the exception of Cyber strikes and covert operations below the threshold of war, Trump kept his powder dry.
This is the prologue to the plot reaching its climax in this, the holiday season, which was also supposed to be the transition season to the next administration, but is now engulfed in uncertainty with Trump refusing to start the handover process. With two months to go – before he indeed goes – Trump is still in charge. Perhaps there is even a cold motive, and not only an emotional denial of reality, behind the delay in intelligence briefings for Biden: If Trump plans an Iran strike, he would not want the CIA assessment of the situation there and by implication the rationale for an attack revealed to his rival soon to dethrone him.
Time is running out for Trump, but just like Obama was within his rights to change US policy regarding West Bank settlements less than a month before he left office, which Trump resented, it would be legal for him – within the confines of the Congressional resolution – to take action up until January 19th. This implications may be the main topic discussed in the coming days between visiting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his hosts in Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Legal is different than legitimate. Trump would have a hard time making a case for an attack on Natanz (though that may not deter a person with a somewhat loose interpretation of facts). Iran is indeed much closer to a bomb, or several ones, than when Trump inherited the White House from Obama, but this is due to his policy. He may now be punishing Iran for his own miscalculation. Nevertheless, he may claim that this is better for the United States, Israel, the Middle East and the world, and as tough and controversial the decision may be, it was his duty to make it.
Up to this point, this scenario could have been written before the election. The surprise, if any, is therefore not in the fact that Trump is acting his role, but that someone in his close circle of advisers made sure the Times has the information about the consultations and publishes it. Within less than a week, a senior official, one of a handful and intent on aborting a strike, revealed the council of war to the world. This is not just a reflection of reality – it may very well change it, with the Iranians moving equipment or material out of Natanz, perhaps to an urban site the US would refrain from attacking for fear of civilian casualties.
Trump’s trigger finger is probably itching, but he is surely considrering the counter-arguments. There is his immediate legacy, “ending forever wars” in the region and “bringing the boys home for Christmas”. A new military adventure would be against the grain of what he wants to be known for.
Looking ahead to 2024, when he may run for President again, Trump has no way of knowing how an Iran strike in November-December 2020 will play out. The Iranians may choose to absorb the blow and wait for Biden, but they can also counter-attack, killing Americans and putting Trump on the defensive politically.
Looking at the score sheet, it would seem that the con’s outweigh the pro’s, even from Trump’s point of view – but then again, Trump being Trump the unpredictable, he could decide that because of the leak he will double down on the strike’s planning and execution. One wonders if there is a clever adviser who tells him, following his own logic, that there is no rush, he is right to claim that he won the election, the courts will overturn Biden’s victory and there will be enough time for Iran in the second term.